For many centuries, sleep paralysis was mythologized in some pretty terrifying ways. One myth was that the person experiencing sleep paralysis was being visited by evil spirits or demons. Another more recent myth involves alien abduction. Sounds horrible, right?
Luckily, today we know that sleep paralysis isn’t the result of a supernatural haunting or a band of nefarious aliens performing experiments. It is a fairly common condition, which affects an estimated eight percent of the population. The percentage is higher in people with other sleep disorders (28 percent). It’s even higher in people who suffer from depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disturbances (34 percent).
Of course, just because an episode of sleep paralysis isn’t the result of an evil demon visitor doesn’t make it less terrifying. These episodes are often extremely frightening and may leave sufferers afraid to go back to sleep. There is a huge positive note, though: sleep paralysis can often be dealt with naturally, in the comfort of your own home.
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is characterized by the feeling of being awake and conscious, but being unable to move or speak. An episode of sleep paralysis can last for anywhere between several seconds to several minutes. These episodes can occur as an individual is falling asleep (hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis) or as an individual is waking up (hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis). People of any age and gender may develop this condition, though it is often first noticed in the teenage years.
On the experience of sleep paralysis, the authors of a 1999 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition wrote:
“Hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences (HHEs) accompanying sleep paralysis (SP) are often cited as sources of accounts of supernatural nocturnal assaults and paranormal experiences. Descriptions of such experiences are remarkably consistent across time and cultures and consistent also with known mechanisms of REM states.”
According to the authors of the aforementioned study, three factors of many sleep paralysis experiences include “sensed presence, fear and auditory and visual hallucinations,” “comprising pressure on the chest, breathing difficulties and pain,” and “floating/flying sensations, out-of-body experiences and feelings of bliss.” While each individual may experience sleep paralysis differently (many do not feel their experiences are “blissful” at all), these are some commonly observed threads.
Sleep paralysis can sometimes accompany other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy, as well as some psychological conditions. However, in many occurrences, it happens independently of any other condition. It is simply considered to be a sign of the body having trouble navigating through the stages of sleep. If this is the case, treatment is often not needed — simply a few lifestyle changes could do the trick.
Factors which may contribute to sleep paralysis
The following factors may make an episode of sleep paralysis more likely:
- Not getting enough sleep, especially on a regular basis
- An inconsistent sleep schedule
- Eating heavy, sugary meals before bed
- Sleeping on your back
- An excess of stress, especially on a chronic basis
- Certain psychological conditions, including bipolar disorder
- Leg cramps which occur during the night
- Sleep disorders including narcolepsy
- Taking some types of medications (if you take a medication, ask your doctor if yours may be contributing)
- Using drugs
Natural ways to keep the paralysis away
First of all, make sure you are getting enough sleep! Your body and mind need between seven to eight hours each night to function properly. Schedule your days and evenings so that you are able to get enough sleep. This may include going to bed earlier, and rescheduling evening tasks to earlier in the day. If you are having trouble sleeping, check out this article on changing up your bedtime routine to promote better sleep.
- If at all possible, try to go to bed around the same time every night.
- Wake up around the same time every morning.
- Sleep on your side instead of on your back.
- Keep your dinner light. Save heavy proteins and fats for earlier in the day (if, of course, they’re healthy fats!).
- Avoid sugar in the evening, as this can be troublesome for the body.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening. Caffeine, as we all know, can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Alcohol can disrupt normal sleep cycles, even though it makes you feel drowsy.
- Meditate before you go to bed. Even five minutes can have a positive effect. But if you’re really struggling to wind down, go for 20 minutes or even half an hour. Meditation takes practice to really get you in that zen place, but it’s worth it, and can ease any nighttime (and daytime) anxiety significantly.
- Avoid electronics for at least half an hour before you go to sleep. The blue light can lead to sleep disruptions. Also, turn off any electronics that you may have running in your bedroom.
- Try drinking some chamomile tea before bed.
- Ask your doctor about whether valerian root or melatonin supplements may be safe and effective for your individual health.
- If you’re experiencing a great deal of stress or other mental issues on a chronic basis, consider seeing a therapist or counselor to help you arrive at effective solutions to underlying problems.
If you experience frequent or severely debilitating sleep paralysis, it may be time to get a referral to a sleep specialist. You’ll want to make sure that there are no other sleep disorders you may be experiencing. Sleep is important, and the sooner you take action, the sooner you’ll be sleeping soundly.
– Tanya Mead